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Memories of Cyclone Demoina on the rampage

Ready to dog-paddle are two marooned pets in a house on the banks of the Umdloti River. The river burst its banks in January, 1984, when cyclone Demoina hit. Picture: Independent Archives

Ready to dog-paddle are two marooned pets in a house on the banks of the Umdloti River. The river burst its banks in January, 1984, when cyclone Demoina hit. Picture: Independent Archives

Published Jan 23, 2021


Just as cyclone Eloise was heading towards the African coastline this week, the deadly cyclone Demoina was heading in the same direction in the same week - 37 years ago.

The scene at the rainswept Kingsmead cricket ground in Durban on February 1, 1984, where Natal was due to play a vital Nissan Shield semi-final match.

Demoina formed off the coast of Madgascar on January 16 and headed towards the east coast of Africa, strengthening in the Mozambiqan channel before finally making landfall on January 28 in southern Mozambique.

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Phineas Mthembu and his 20-month-old nephew, Vusi, who survived after chest deep water washed the mud plaster off the walls of their home and swept most of their possessions away in February, 1984.

Demoina brought a deluge of rain with winds reaching up to 100km/h, a storm of epic proportions not seen in a hundred years. Bridges collapsed and rivers flooded, resulting in raging floodwaters with thousands of people being left stranded and homeless, as well as widespread crop and livestock damage.

Asodhie Reddy, Vimla Reddy and Muniamah Reddy whose home was destroyed by the heavy rains. The Canelands family of six, whose wood and iron home on the banks of the Umdloti River was destroyed, have been helped by a Verulam businessman who housed he family in his home. Picture: Independent Archives.

There were reports of 60 deaths across the Southern African region, but it was probable that the number was far higher, with many being swept away and reported missing.

Elsie Marx, the pregnant wife of a Mbazwane police sergeant, almost gave birth to a water baby en route to the Empangeni maternity hospital when their vehicle bogged down in a flooded river. She was in the throes of labour when their vehicle was stuck, more than 50km away from the hospital. Seeing Marx's predicament, local farmer Chris Wex rushed them to his farm house because his wife was a midwife. Marx said: “I was getting very worried, my baby wasn't due for another two days and I could feel it would be born at any minute”. The route to the hospital was impassable because of floods caused by cyclone Demoina. Picture: John Woodroof, Independent Archives.

The Daily News reported on January 30, under the headline 'Cyclone Brings Chaos to Natal', the rain was pummelling the city: “In Durban, thousands of motorists were up to two hours late today after a series of multiple collisions aggravated by waterlogged cars, stranded in the continuing heavy rain, choking the freeway from Tollgate in Durban 12 kilometres to Pinetown.”

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Clem Slabbert at the helm of one of the boats being used to ferry people across the Umfolozi River. Boat owners, including private firms, the NSRI and the Natal Parks Board, rallied to open the link with Mtubatuba on the north bank of the river after the rail and road bridges were swept away. Picture: Independent Archives

Weather reports recorded 120mm of rain at Durban Point and 108.4mm at the old Louis Botha Airport in Prospecton, while the monthly average for January was 109mm.

A report from the Daily News on February 1 detailed the damage to roads and rail, with Zululand bearing the brunt of the rampaging cyclone: “Hundreds and thousands of people are cut off in Northern Zululand after the main road bridge and railway line were severed yesterday by a raging Umfolosi River. The big road bridge between Empangeni and Mtubatuba, which had stood up to a battering by the river for most of the day, was eventually smashed at 6.40pm.“ It added at least five other bridges had been washed away.

The White Umfolozi River bridge was damaged in the storm. Picture: Independent Archives.

“Big trees came down the river, tossed by whirling and bucking water. Below the road bridge, the river formed a rollercoaster of waves between two to three metres high… at one stage, a whole colony of about 40 to 50 pelicans came washing downriver, bobbing on the boiling surface.“

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As rescue operations got under way, SAAF helicopters rescued up to 60 people in northern Natal, and at least 3 000kg of food and medical supplies were dropped to stranded communities in Pongola, Mtubatuba and the Umfolosi valley.

There were reports of tragic deaths, miraculous escapes, babies born and heroic deeds.

Dundee resident, Fred Herman, said he watched the car in front of him disappear into a hole on the Blood River bridge.

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“I was following the car when it just disappeared. I stood on my brakes and swerved into the barrier. I realised then that the car had driven straight into the river from a hole in the bridge.”

The body of a woman and a half-filled baby’s bottle were found in the same river while another woman clung to a tree along with two mambas, some rats and other small creatures.

“The snakes made no attempt to attack the woman or eat the rats. They simply all clung on. The name of the game was simple survival,” said the farmer who found the woman.

Hundreds of farmers in northern Zululand were left bankrupt after the floods, having scraped through the previous four years of drought. Sugar farms in the Umfolosi flats suffered damages estimated to run into millions of rands.

“I think we have prayed too hard for rain, perhaps we should have prayed a little less,” said one Zululand resident.

The swollen Umfolosi river smashed through the artificial restraints at the St Lucia estuary. A warning was issued that crocodiles may well have been washed out of the estuary into the sea and may appear on the beach. An alert was also put out regarding lions which possibly escaped from Hluhluwe Game Reserve, with six game reserves closing because of disruption in water supplies and road closures. A massive relief fund was set up to assist the ravaged area.

In Durban, SAA stopped their 50th birthday celebrations by cancelling a repeat flight of one of the airline's first flights by a Junker JU52 aircraft from Durban to Johannesburg. The horse racing meeting due to be held at Scottsville was postponed, optimistically until the next day (whether it actually took place was not reported).

When the rain first arrived in the drought stricken northern Natal, farmers flocked to pubs in Jozini, Hluhluwe and Pongola to celebrate the end of the hard drought, according to a report in Sunday Tribune, February 6: “While they were in the pubs, their farms got sloshed.”

As some decided to head home, the rain was so heavy they decided to rather stay put in the pub.

Farmer Whittie Hallett, who later found his cattle stuck in trees, suffered an estimated R750 000 of damages. Another farmer, Hennie Terblanche, said: “We've never seen anything like this before - huge trees, two or three centuries old, were uprooted and washed away. But we’re still smiling,” he grinned, taking a long pull on his pipe and ordering another round of drinks.

Less than two weeks after Demoina, tropical storm Imboa hit KwaZulu-Natal causing additional flooding

Independent on Saturday

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